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A Day at Creed’s: An Original Comic Opera

Published 1949

From a series of old 78 rpm discs, this is a recording of “A Day at Creed’s” a comic opera by James Cahill (libretto) and Gordon Cyr (music). The work, and its origins, are described in an essay by Cahill, from which is taken the following excerpts:

A close friend during my late high school and early U.C. Berkeley years was the composer Gordon Cyr, who later taught at Tyson State U. in Baltimore and died recently. We came together with other music lovers often to play records (exciting then, when not everything was available) and talk about music. The two of us, from high school on, made grand plans for musicals and operas, using my literary talents for the libretti and Gordon's compositional gifts for the music.

By 1949, when I was back from the Army and working toward a B.A. in Oriental Languages at Berkeley, also producing a weekly rare-record program on Radio Station KPFA, Gordon and I were living in a big rented house on Hillegass Ave. in Berkeley with three other people: Bill Pinckard, Don Aird, and Walt McKibben...Gordon and I conceived the idea of realizing at last, as one of these musicales, our high school plan of doing an opera together. None of our projects had ever been carried out, we realized, because they were too large-scale; this time we would do a very small opera, for performance by ourselves in our living room...

Our subject: Creed's Bookstore, then located in the block of stores that stretched at your right as you came out of Sather Gate toward Telegraph Ave...Creed's, besides selling textbooks, was an extensive old-book store stretching back through a number of rooms, all with shelves up to near the ceiling and piles of unshelved books on the floor...The manager of Creed's was Earl J. Schilling, a portly man with a goatee beard whose wife (never seen, reputed to be fearsome) owned the store. It was patronized by the best of Berkeley's literary lights and some from San Francisco, along with UCB students and professors....

By the time I returned from the Army, Creed's had changed in two ways. First, it had begun selling used records (78 RPM albums, mainly) and so was a hangout also for record collectors. When we wrote our opera, Earl Schilling was complaining facetiously that the records were taking over his beloved book business. The other was that the new clerks in the store belonged to a Berkeley group of literary-musical gays: Al Lewis, Ph.D. candidate in Ancient History at UCB; Morrill Folsom, antiques enthusiast and lover of esoteric lore... and a younger man, Howard, whose last name I don't remember. I spent a lot of time with them, at Creed's and outside, and for a time was suspected of being gay myself...

My libretto, then, was set in Creed's, and was about the critical day when the number of records had come to equal exactly the number of books, so that the next acquisition or sale would determine the future of the store. I played Earl Schilling; Gordon was Al Lewis, Walt was Morrill Folsom. Don Aird, needed most at the piano, played Simon Q. Legree, the villain who would try to buy away rare records from people bringing them in for sale. And there were a number of other parts, real and imaginary people who came into the store...

The first performance, in our hallway (with the audience watching from the packed living room), was an eagerly awaited, major Berkeley event. Several people came in tails; someone in the lobby rented opera glasses so you could look through them the wrong way and seem to be at the Met. We performed a kind of ballet during Intermission, which I won't describe. It was a night to remember. We performed it twice more at our house, and once (sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa) at an auditorium on campus; and finally on radio station KPFA. For this, since listeners couldn't see the action, I added commentary, delivered ad lib by myself. It was from this performance that the recording was made...

Ever since, scattered groups of old Berkeley people have met from time to time to listen to the recording and feel nostalgic. Don Aird, who became conductor of the Berkeley Chamber Singers, and I were invited to one of these some ten years ago? I kept a set of 78 RPM records and would play them for visitors and old friends, becoming in the end rather tired of it—much of it, I came to feel, is dated and topical, unfunny unless you knew the people and situations. But now, learning that it still has its admirers and...still seems funny to some sympathetic listeners, I have decided to make the CD available to readers of this website. (A description of how to obtain it follows, which is not relevant here.)

Listening to it again impresses me, more than I have realized for years, with how good the music is—solid, clever, allusive, sometimes intricate, never hackneyed or dull. I have no idea whether a score exists anywhere—if it does, it is among Gordon Cyr's preserved musical scores. As I wrote, he taught during his later years at Tyson State University in Baltimore...

From his high-school days on, Gordon loved musical jokes and parodies. When he received his military draft notice in the early 1940s (he was never drafted, bad eyesight or something) he set it to music and went around Berkeley performing it for friends, accompanying himself on the piano. He founded the Celestial Revenge Publishing Co., to publish works giving old composers their revenge on modern composers who had used their music without their permission. The only such work actually composed was (really by Gordon, of course) Pergolesi's "New Arrangement of the 'Dance of the Adolescents' from 'The Rite of Spring' for Harpsichord or Clavichord"—a reduction of this powerful orchestral work to a keyboard piece in Baroque style, which Gordon would play on the piano. This gave Pergolesi his revenge for Stravinsky's use of his music in "The Fairy's Kiss" ballet. Announced but never composed was Henry Purcell's "Old Person's Guide to the Chamber Orchestra, On a Theme by Benjamin Britten," similarly giving Purcell his revenge for Britten's "The Young Person's Guide to the Symphony Orchestra," which presents variations on a theme by Purcell. I can't recall others, although they were announced. We made up our own names for old composers; at the top of one of Gordon's compositions in Mozart style I wrote, "Derived by Cyr, with subtle witchcraft/ From the works of W. A. Ditchcraft" (Moat's Art = Ditch Craft, get it? Sorry.)

So, the recording of "A Day At Creed's" (or, Gordon's name, which we used in the radio broadcast, "Creedo in Unum Bookstore") seems to be all that survives of what was a substantial and admirable work of music. I hope and trust that distributing the disk and making it available to readers of my website will win new admirers for Gordon's strong and fine (and funny) achievement.

James Cahill, January 2011

Note: A full version of this essay can be found on James Cahill’s website as No. 57 in his "Responses and Reminiscences" series.

Run time 70 min


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on 1/25/2011